Conceptualized as the user’s starting point in the reference process, it is the determining origin of the question(s) the user poses. In a global sense, the individual can encounter a void in their personal universe, in the form of a discontinuity or disparity. If the individual recognizes this void as significant and in need of bridging, it can give rise to information-seeking behavior. Dervin and Dewdney (1986) conceive of the user as a “sense-maker” whose progress can be hampered by a “lack of sense”, leading to the initiation of a search to make sense. They employ a tripartite division between the “gap” (the void), the “situation” (the user’s universe) and the “uses” (what the missing information will accomplish). The assumption here is that the user has an addressable issue that motivates their enquiry.
The information problem, when presented at the reference service, is mediated by affective, behavioral and cognitive variables. The reference transaction or interview seeks to uncover the original information problem in order to address the user’s needs. Factors which complicate the process of finding the problem behind the presented question(s) include: the process of question formation and the presentation of questions from different stages in this process; the social nature of the reference transaction compromising purely informational communication; and user’s assumptions about how and where the information problem can be addressed (all surveyed and critiqued in Richardson, 1995, 2002). Specific recommendations for the reference transaction include the use of neutral questions to contextualize the user’s need in their sense-making universe and confirmatory questions to check that the information problem has been addressed (Dewdney, 1998; Dewdney & Michell, 1996, 1997).
Determination of the information problem is a way of obviating the procedural and ethical problem of needs versus wants. If the user confirms that his/her information problem has been solved, librarians can be reasonably sure they have addressed the gap in the user’s sense-making process, in a way that is acceptable to the user. Simple resolution of the problem (i.e. providing adequate information for the presented questions) may only address what users want, rather than what they need.
Empirical research on the reference interview suggests that determining the information problem can be one of the tasks in which a search intermediary engages (Liu & Wu, 2003) and that intermediaries use elicitation strategies to refine search terms to meet the user’s information problem (Sollenberger & Spink, 2004). Research is also addressing the notion of ill-structured problems, which cross disciplinary boundaries and might involve value judgments, and the interaction of user and intermediary in their solution (e.g. Fields, 2006). The information problem notion has also been further extended to encompass iterative problem formation and information searching over several sessions (Belkin & Lin, 2005).
The thrust of these studies is to undermine the notion of a unitary source for the user’s information problem, or even that it is located in the past. Users revise and update their information problem as more information becomes available to them. “Sense-making” is thus seen as a continuous process.
Belkin, N., & Lin, S. (2005). Validation of a model of information seeking over multiple search sessions. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 56(4), 393-415.
Dervin, B., & Dewdney, P. (1986). Neutral questioning: A new approach to the reference interview. RQ, 25(4), 506-513.
Dewdney, P. (1988). The effective reference interview. Canadian Library Journal, 45(3), 183-184.
Dewdney, P., & Michell, G. (1996). Oranges and peaches: Understanding communication accidents in the reference interview. RQ, 35(4), 520-523.
Dewdney, P., & Michell, G. (1997). Asking `why' questions in the reference interview: A theoretical justification. Library Quarterly, 67(1), 50-71.
Eichman, T. L. (1978). The complex nature of opening reference questions. RQ, 17(3), 212-222.
Fields, A. M. (2006). Ill-structured problems and the reference consultation: The librarian's role in developing student expertise. Reference Services Review, 34(3), 405-420,
Liu, Y., & Wu, M. (2003). Intermediary's information seeking, inquiring minds, and elicitation styles. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 54(12), 1117-1133.
Richardson, J. V. (1995). Knowledge-based systems for general reference work: Applications, problems, and progress. San Diego: Academic Press.
Richardson, J.V. (2002). The current state of research on reference transactions. In F.C. Lynden (Ed.), Advances in Librarianship, Vol 26 (pp. 175-230). San Diego: Academic Press.
Ross, C. S., & Dewdney, P. (1986). Reference interviewing skills: Twelve common questions. Public Libraries, 25(1), 7-9.
Sollenberger, M., & Spink, A. (2004). Elicitation purposes and tasks during mediated information search. Journal of Documentation, 60(1), 77-91.